America runs on Dunkin’,” goes the slogan for Dunkin’ Donuts. And much of business runs on too little sleep.

The same could be said of many safety and health managers. According to ISHN’s 23rd annual White Paper reader survey (see page 12), work hours in the past year have increased for 40 percent of pros. Half the respondents report higher levels of stress, and 51 percent have heavier workloads.

Sleep deprivation is a “problem of epidemic proportions,” according to an article in the October 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The article goes on to say that “frenzied corporate cultures” put their employees at serious jeopardy of heavy-lidded at-risk behavior all over the world in the name of “sleepless machismo” that is downright dangerous.

It’s the “antithesis of intelligent management,” bemoans HBR, to push employees “to the brink of self-destruction.” Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, the Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says in the article it’s past time for executives to own up to their critical responsibility to take sleeplessness seriously.

But we can’t put sleep deficits in the age of over-scheduling all on the shoulders of pushy bosses. We’ve got to accept some personal responsibility for running at the pace we do.

Love that rush

Baby boomers, who run most businesses and families these days, have turned out to be quite the competitive generation. And in the book, “Tired of Being Tired” (The Berkley Publishing Group, 2001), authors Dr. Jesse Lynn Hanley and Nancy Deville remind us, “Highly ambitious people love the adrenaline rush.” It’s the high that seduces. And the lifestyle that has us skipping lunches, swilling Red Bull, and getting by on five or six hours of shut eye. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” sang the songwriter Warren Zevon, a boomer favorite.

“I don’t want my headstone to be blank,” says a running-on-empty business manager in the book, trying to rationalize her addiction to overtime, deadlines, red-eye flights, late dinners, early breakfasts, midnight e-mailing, Power Bars and Diet Cokes.

It’s not as though we’re so beat we can’t recognize our at-risk behavior. Barnes & Noble is stocked with titles such as, “No More Sleepless Nights,” “Say Goodnight to Insomnia,” “The Promise of Sleep,” and the inevitable “Sleep Disorders for Dummies.”

How many road warriors pack a few Ambien pills before they hopscotch across the country, or around the world? Quite a few, considering that sleep medication rings up annual sales of $1.4 billion in the U.S., according to HBR. Sepracor, the pharmaceutical manufacturer of Estorra, which lays claim to be longer-acting, predicts sleeping-pill sales will top the $5 billion mark by 2010, according to a 2005 article in Mother Jones magazine.

Tiredness takes its toll

Still, people everywhere operate heavy and dangerous machinery, guard high-security sites, make critical decisions and attempt to lead teams and meetings and train employees every day while they’re exhausted, says the HBR article. That’s not all:
  • An estimated 80,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day.
    A Driver fatigue has accounted for more than 1.35 million auto accidents in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • Sleep researchers estimate between 10 percent and 15 percent of Americans experience serious insomnia (defined as not getting a good night’s sleep for a month or more).
  • In a study of hospital interns who had worked at least 24 straight hours, the odds of stabbing themselves with a needle increased 61 percent, their risk of crashing while driving shot up 168 percent, and their risk of a near-miss multiplied 460 percent.

Reality check

A good sleep policy is smart business strategy, advocates Dr. Czeisler. Of course, it would serve as a reasonable personal policy as well. But the good doctor’s sincerity, warnings and evidence documenting the dire consequences of sleep deprivation will go unheeded by most of us, who are too busy and/or complacent to take note.

I live in a quite typical suburban neighborhood. The rush hour roar from a nearby freeway is going full throttle well before 6 a.m. A neighbor across the street is off to work before seven most mornings, commutes to an office an hour away, and rolls back in around eight at night. Another dad travels out of town most of the week. Moms on our block, commandeering vans and station wagons, run shuttle services for their kids and friends, criss-crossing the county in mad dashes to the next practice, game, lesson, rehearsal, party, dance, sleepover, movie or mall excursion. No wonder parents walk into school basketball games at night, Christmas concerts or teacher conferences with Starbucks cups in hand.

No wonder coffee is the world’s second-most widely consumed commodity after oil, says the HBR article.

Fatalists and fanatics

The antidote for all this sleep cheating? Dr. Czeisler prescribes corporate sleep policies. Behavioral expectations for getting enough rest, along the lines of company rules against smoking, drug abuse and sexual harassment. A ban on red-eye flights. A day off after a long international flight. Annual screening for sleep disorders. Mandatory employee education. And supervisory training and modeling in proper sleep behavior.

You can stop laughing now. Search the OSHA Web site topic index for “sleep deprivation” and the closest you come is “slide presentations.” The doctor’s remedies would prevent accidents and save lives, no doubt. But when it comes to the risks of shorting ourselves on sleep, most of us are either fatalists (You gotta do what you gotta do to make a living and raise a family) or fanatics (I worked 12 hours, finished the project, clinched the deal, closed the sale and still made it to my son’s soccer game. So what did you do today?).